The Inequality Gap

by Linda Beale

The Inequality Gap

Robert Reich, former labor secretary, has some worthwhile advice for the President’s State of the Union address:  he notes that the focus should be the “central issue you want the nation to help you take action on”.  That’s “not immigration, guns or the environment” (though “[a]ll are important”) but rather “joblessness, falling real wages, economic insecurity, and widening inequality” . See Robert Reich, Memo to Obama: Focus on the inequality gap, (Feb. 11, 2013).

He’s right.

It’s the economy, stupid“, that old slogan from the Clinton campaign days, goes only so far.  It doesn’t tell us, for example, what parts of the economy are most important–is it the stock market’s well-being, and indirectly the fortunes of the very few at the top of the income distribution who own significant amounts of those items being sold on the market?  Or is it the unemployment data, with its distressing litany of continuing failure of our economy to provide decent jobs for ordinary people?  Is it the way that corporate owners and managers can use the powers of government to make unionization difficult and thereby make it much easier for corporate management and shareholders to retain all the productivity gains while workers wages stagnate (everything from Wal-Mart’s tendency to tear down union fliers in worker areas (based on my personal observation) to the CEO’s determination to beat unions down any way possible (see the New York Times story in the 2/12 edition, At Cablevision, Norma Rae‘s Been Escorted Outside, New York Times (Feb. 12, 2013), at A23, regarding Cablevision’s firing of two  dozen employees for being off work,

after claiming to have an “open” management that invited worker conversations yet allowing those same employees to cool their heels for 40 minutes waiting to talk to him and then walking out and firing them for not being on the job)?  Or is it the general optimism of the upper class, who can pass on untaxed estates to heirs who will get those stocks at stepped up basis and renew the cycle of monetization without taxation for their own account?

Stock market statistics mostly tell us about the upper class, along with the upper part of the middle class that has some share of that bounty:  they don’t tell us about how well the economy is serving others, unless the general well-being of corporate America spills over to the general well-being of average Americans.  It doesn’t do that in an era of push-down on unions to ensure that workers have no voice, push-back on taxes to ensure that the wealthy managers and owners not only get all the productivity gains but have to pay too little in taxes to support the system that made those gains possible.  Mostly, stock market statistics tell us about how the privileged are maintaining their privilege, as their ownership of most of the financial assets continues to mean their heightened influence over most laws and their garnering of most of the gains that do take place.

This is well noted in a post on Economist’s View (Mark Thoma), embedding a post by Miles Corak on Free Exchange about research on inter-generational social mobility.

The real lesson from the historical research is not that there is anything inevitable about a low degree of inter-generational mobility, or that it signals more persistence than other research. The most privileged will do everything they can to perpetrate their status across generations, and in past eras the structure of labor markets and public policies permitted, and in some measure continue to permit, a non-level playing field.

I’ve long argued that the way to evaluate the economy is in terms of how well it is serving ordinary people who make up the middle class (roughly defined as the middle three quitiles of the income and wealth distribution)  and how adequate is the safety net it provides for those who make up the lower class (the bottom quintile of income and wealth).

What matters is economic sustainability, in terms of  adequacy of those many intangibles by which we measure quality of life–like accessible quality health care, accessible quality education, accessible quality jobs, decent wages for decent work.  That means that government’s intervention in the economy will need to be on the side of the little guy, ensuring that resource allocation isn’t so skewed to the already rich that we become an oligarchy where most of us live off crumbs and a few of us live like kings.  If we want a sustainable economy and sustainable democracy, democratic eqalitarianism demands that governments temper market forces with protections for underdogs, providing counter forces to the redistribution upwards tendency of brute force capitalism.

Today, the rise of the US oligarchy and the frightening power of wealth in determining how laws work have put us in a terrible situation:   “debtor prisons, once a relic of the 18th century, are making a frightening comeback in the U.S. justice system.”  Alex Kane, Miss a traffic ticket, go to jail?, (Feb. 11, 2013).

So an appropriate slogan for progressives today should be something along the lines of “It’s the inequality, stupid.”  And that certainly doesn’t mean more of the same old failed GOP policies that favor the wealthy, mistakenly labeled “job creators” by the GOP in its constant effort to undo unions (witness Michigan’s disastrous anti-union legislation or Cablevision’s determination to aid anti-union forces and squelch union activists), favor capital over labor (from the problematic preferential rate for capital gains to the ridiculous “carried interest” taxation of the compensation payments to so-called profits partners (a category of “partner” for tax purposes not provided for in the tax code but essentially an invention of Wall Street) to the squandering waste of an estate tax and charitable contribution deduction that favor meritless accession to and use of untaxed wealth and pushes the burden for government revenues to laborers instead).  And it certainly doesn’t mean more of the same “deficit hawks, austerity mavens, trickle-down charlatans, and government haters who have commanded center stage for too long.”  Memo to Obama: Focus on the inqueality gap,

As Reich says:

The President should make it clear that any Republican effort to hold the nation hostage to the GOP’s ideological fixation on the budget deficit and a smaller government will slow the economy, likely pushing us into another recession.  And that those most imperiled are the middle class and the poor.
He should emphasize that the real job creators are not the rich but the vast majority of ordinary Americans whose purchases give businesses reason to add jobs.  And that if most Americans still cannot afford to buy, the government must be the spender of last resort.  Id.

Reich goes on to make some specific policy suggestions for acting to reduce inequality.  These include

  • reversing the impact of the reinstatement of the higher Social Security tax rate by exempting the first $20,000 of income from the tax and lifing the ceiling on income subject to it;
  • reviving government-run work corps, like the WPA and CCC, “to put the long-term unemployed directly to work”
  • raising the minimum wage
  • imposing a 2% tax surcharge on wealth in excess of $7 billion to be dedicated to education
  • Cutting corporate and military welfare
  • not cutting public investments or safety nets
  • giving tax credits for actual job creation
  • supporting states that rehire teachers, firefighters police and social workers.  Id. (quoting and paraphrasing).

Sounds like a pretty good plan.   As Corak noted (in the Economist’s View post cited above):
[D]ynamic labor markets offering new opportunities to the population as a whole, progressive public policies of relatively more benefit to the relatively disadvantaged, and strong families with growing incomes and human capital will lead to much more mobility than aristocrats of a pervious era could ever have imagined.

And the Reich plan is certainly better than what most of the GOP-led state experiments like Michigan are coming up with, which read like a plan for even more redistributing upwards to the top few, including:

  • eliminating income taxes in favor of regressive sales taxes,
  • eliminating business taxes in favor of regressive user fees (a GOP-led Michigan “upward” redistribution “innovation”),
  • pushing hard against unions  (a GOP-led Michigan “innovation”),
  • reducing safety net support like Medicaid (being considered in Michigan),
  • taxing vulnerable seniors on pension income (another of Michigan’s recent “innovations”),
  • cutting support for state universities while reallocating the support that remains to those that serve the upper class rather than underprivileged who will generally need to borrow more and take longer to succeed (another of Michigan’s redistributionist efforts).

cross posted with ataxingmatter